Returning to share notes from yet another World Fantasy Con panel: Unsafe Places and Why Characters Go There (see Gender 401 and Writing as Sanctuary, for other panels). The panelists were Ysabeau Wike, Nina K. Hoffman, Rajan Khanma, Joe Haldeman, and Suzy Charnas.
I expected this panel to be about the journey troupe – stories following those who chose to stand up and go, not the ones who are reasonable and stay home. But, the panel itself ended up being more of a discussion on how to use unsafe places to propel the story forward.
What is an Unsafe Place?
Just because a place is safe for one person, doesn’t mean it’s safe for everyone. Places can be unsafe due to the environment itself, or because of the people in the place.
Sometimes? Home is the unsafe place. And it can be unsafe because of external factors, or because of internal ones.
According to Charnas, when fate is against you, no place is safe. And old age is a very unsafe place.
Finding the Conflict That Initiates the Story
When you begin a story, you should make clear what is missing in the main character’s life — or at least, what they THINK is missing.
Often, the strongest stories are about the true thing that is hidden. In those cases, the missing thing identified at the beginning is simply a symptom, not the cause of the conflict.
It’s okay if you don’t know what the true cause is when you start writing the story. Writing can be a search process, a way of finding your way out of the dark. WARNING: If you go into the story with an agenda, stories often come out rather contrived. Strive to avoid that.
Sometimes, the unsafe thing didn’t exist prior to the story’s start. It can be that the world changed and became unsafe for your character.
When The Conflict Is Internal
The internal conflict can either be a mental health issue, or an uncontrolled ability (like magic). It can be an internal need — to control one’s temper, to belong, to be loved. These are the things that make characters relatable and human.
When The Character Doesn’t See It Coming
Betrayal — when the main character thinks they’re safe, but they’re not.
The Joy Of YA
The joy of YA is that kids or teens will defeat problems long after the adults have resigned themselves to a world where the problems are insurmountable.
What Happens Next?
If you need to enhance conflict you can always limit resources. Be it allies, money, magic, or time.
Once you’ve addressed that first conflict — to fix the thing that was making your character unsafe — the main character usually finds something else they need to do — some new issue that’s often the consequence of the first fix.
And that’s it. That’s all the panel had time to discuss. Defining, exploring, and exploiting unsafe places to drive a plot forward.
If you’ve written a story, what was the factor that made your character’s space ‘unsafe’?
If you’re not a writer, share the factor that made a space unsafe for one of your favorite books.